Rule of Thumbnail
Screenwriting tip #1: How to Introduce Characters in your Script
For an unknown screenwriter it’s always a struggle getting a person of influence – an agent, a development executive, a producer – to read your script. There’s a reason for this. When these readers do turn the title page bearing an unfamiliar name, all too often they find what follows to be a tough read. No matter how well-structured your story, how complex your characters or original your ideas, if your screenplay has the stylistic verve of a credit card contract, the chances of it being accepted are low.
Luckily there are ways of making your screenplay more readable and I’ll share one of them with you here, a tip originally given to me by my good friend David Lemon.
Most often what draws us into the story of a film is the characters, the central character in particular. In a finished film this is often made easier because an actor who we know and, hopefully, like is playing that protagonist. A screenplay does not have that advantage, so we have to work hard to make up for that lack of star charisma. A vital tool for this is the character thumbnail.
The thumbnail is a brief description of a character, rarely more than a sentence or two, presented the first time we meet them. This can act much like a movie pitch: it gets us interested in the character; and if we’re interested in the characters we’re more likely to be interested in the story. You’re getting the reader to buy in.
All too often, however, this opportunity to introduce the character goes unused. I’ve read many screenplays where we’re just given the character’s name and left to work out the rest. Other writers might offer an age and perhaps a brief physical description. If the character is female, these writers often consider that the fact that’s most telling of the very essence of their heroine’s being is the colour of her hair. It’s 2014; do we still believe that ‘blonde’ tells us everything we need to know?
Certainly, age can help clue us into important things about the character – maybe they’re very young to be an army captain or too old to be a professional football player. Physical appearance, however, only helps if it’s the result of the character’s choices. Do they look like they’ve seen battle, spent too long in the gym or the salon, does their face tell of a lifetime of heavy drinking? Now we start to understand the character a little better.
What holds many screenwriters back from producing more compelling thumbnails is a basic rule taught to all rookies of the screen trade: never give the reader any information that the audience wouldn’t be able to see or hear. While generally useful advice, it can encourage writers to offer character descriptions that are external and baldly factual. But these writers just need to develop a more confident understanding of what the audience might be able to tell by looking at and listening to the actor in the finished film. Do we doubt that the audience gets within moments of meeting him that Niles Crane in Frasier is over-educated and snobbish? A character’s manner is something we can see and hear, and often we can make a shrewd guess at a few of the circumstances that have led to the character being the way they are. Were they head girl at school and have taken that persona into adult life? Are their slow reactions and relaxed manner the result of years smoking weed? Or perhaps we may not need to be Sherlock Holmes to guess that a character is a big fan of Lord of the Rings. Observations like these can help liven up a thumbnail. In the screenplay of The Dallas Buyers Club, for example, we’re introduced to one character with this line:
“CLINT (32) a greasy hick who’s spent the last five months under the hood of a CHEVY”
I doubt anyone complained that we never see this minor character slaving away on their automobile; it’s just there to give us a sense of them as a person.
What this approach achieves is instant recognition. In a single sentence we can picture the character: we feel we know who they are or maybe even that we know someone just like them. This understanding of the character can of course be deepened, or even overturned, as the story progresses. However, by quickly and easily locating the character for us, the writer has given us an ‘in’. It ensures that we’ll remember that character and engage with them.
While this approach is fine for secondary characters, protagonists often deserve a more complex set-up. This can involve clueing the reader in to the drama that is to come. When we meet Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity we see her in a space suit tethered to the Hubble telescope and we’re told:
“RYAN STONE is a medical engineer, specialized in hospital scanning systems. She’s focused on her work as though she’s all alone in the world. This is her first mission.”
There’s a lot in there that we can’t tell just by looking, but none of that information is later relied upon, so it does no harm. We also understand that an engineer who is used to dealing with hospital scanning systems is likely already to be far from her comfort zone when working in zero gravity with one of the world’s most expensive pieces of hardware. It’s her first mission too: is she out of her depth?
What is more interesting still is the reference to her focusing on her work as though she’s all alone in the world. This gives us a concise little character insight: she’s a loner, she enjoys her work to the exclusion of all else. But more than that, it hints at the action that is to follow where Stone will become truly isolated, and not a form of isolation with which she will be so comfortable.
Another trick for getting us behind the protagonist is to provide contradictions in their description, things that don’t add up. These can be physical, like the character in Captain Phillips who we’re told is “tough as a bouncer but with a Boy Scout face.” Better though if the contradictions point to something deeper. Famously Paul Schrader wrote a character introduction for Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver that is over a page long. (Don’t try that at home: Schrader was Schrader, he could get away with it.) But this description does contain a few engaging contradictions like
“he has a quiet steady look and a disarming smile which flashes from nowhere, lighting up his whole face. But behind that smile… one can see the ominous stains caused by a life of private fear, emptiness and loneliness.”
Such contradictions get us interested: they suggest that the character is three-dimensional, and that we will learn more about what makes them tick as the story progresses.
None of this should be seen as a substitute for showing us how a character engages with the world from the first moment we meet them: that is good dramatic writing. A character thumbnail is more a trick of the trade, one which recognises that people don’t always read scripts with the level of attention for which the writer would hope. Even the best screenplays are not always an easy read, anything that can make yours more user-friendly could be the difference between a producer putting it down at page ten or reading to the end and picking up the project.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2014
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge